Anthropology, objectivity, and activism. Processing the field research experience.

There is this image of an anthropologists as a detached observer, who doesn’t let his or her own ideals or visions of how society should function or ethical views of how people ought to treat each other guide her research.  But sometimes it’s hard not to care.  Pressing issues of social justice challenge the border between scientific  disengagement and ethical activism, and “open up important possibilities for rethinking what anthropology is and does, and what contributions it can make to global activism concerning social justice “ (Merry 2005: 241).

While I was in the field, I was working, I was a researcher, and I didn’t feel personally affected by the things I was observing or hearing.  I was (and still am) supper thankful that my ‘informants,’ the people I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with, didn’t treat me with kid gloves. They spoke to me quite candidly about their, or their societies, attitude toward people with disabilities or ‘the issue’ of disability and accessibility (separating ‘the issue’ from the real human struggles).  But now that it’s over, the goals (for this summer), have been reached, it’s time for processing, and the emotions are starting to come out.  I guess it’s undeniable that I have a disability too.  Yet I’m well aware of all the privileges I’ve received in life, growing up in wealthy countries, with loving and supportive parents, accommodating schools,etc.  But I know this very privileged life i’m living seems so impossible and unthinkable to many people with (or even without) similar physical limitations – and this is, I guess, my personal bias or (ulterior) motive in this research. That is why I can’t simply be a detached observer. sorry.

At the risk of sounding ‘unprofessional’  I want to share some personal reflections about the hardest parts and the most pernicious attitudes I’ve been confronted with in this research.  What I keep running into is this underlying attitude that disabled people, as a group (not the ones you know personally), are an entirely different class of human beings. Rather than equal human beings – with the same desires to be included, acknowledged, and to feel like we are contributing in a meaningful way to our society – whose bodies or minds happen to function a little differently. Another thing is the idea that ‘disability is something that doesn’t concern me’  or only affects a small segment of society.  ‘Why go through the trouble of making the world more “comfortable” for a few unfortunate misfits who are too blind, or too lame, or to deaf, to function in the ‘normal’ world?’ ‘Why should ‘we’ bow to ‘their’ needs?’  But why should those who can walk always be privileged over those who can’t? Why should those who can see and hear be privileged over those who can’t?  It doesn’t hurt anyone to make it possible for blind people to cross the street safely, or for wheelchair users to have access to buildings too (I didn’t frequently go into such discussion during my field research, but now I guess my personally biases are coming out).  Disabled people are not asking to be seen as a special group that deserves special accommodations, assistance, and privileges. We just want to be able to function as normal human beings in the world – and yes, that may involve making some adjustments to the current order of things, but again, it’s not about making ‘special accommodations’ for a few misfits, but creating a more inclusive environment for a more diverse range of people  because that’s what we all are, and we all deserve equal access and chances, in my humble opinion.

Jennie Fenton began her  TedX speech “inclusion, belonging, and the disability revolution” with an illustration of the caste system in India where there is a segment of society that is excluded from most profession, receives substandard wages, experiences exclusion from many public spaces and communal resources like wells “purely by virtue of their birth, whole groups of people have been segregated within their communities, at festivals, in restaurants, in schools,etc” and asks the audience to imagine if this kind of marginalization were happening in your society. Wouldn’t you be outraged? Well, she points out, it is happening in our societies, and this (or at least one of these) excluded group are people with disabilities, who, purely by virtue of the body they were born into (or developed through no fault of their own), do not have equal access to many parts of their society.  And yet we turn a blind eye. or make up excuses like ‘there isn’t enough money to change this.’  or ‘the disabled people themselves prefer to stay in their homes and be lazy and let other people care for them.’

Sometimes I feel like I’m shouting this to a stone wall though.  Sometimes I feel like I ought to acknowledge that, well, this is just one of the many ‘issues’ in the world. And of course, everyone thinks their cause is the most important. At Slot (the festival where I presented on this topic), there were so many different NGOs represented and different ways of changing the world that one can choose from.  Sadly, it makes sense to me that “mine” (in quotation marks, because, of course, I personally feel like it should be everyone’s concern) isn’t seen as the most important or the most popular cause out there. Sometimes I feel like I don’t even care anymore either.  But maybe this is a symptom of what anthropologists call ‘going native’? – when you start to adopt the attitudes or worldview of the people you are studying.   in my case, the majority. I’m studying their attitudes, and sometimes I feel myself starting to adopt them, and almost agreeing with expressions like:

“Creating a secure economy is most important here. After that, you can start dealing with the comfort of the people.”  – equating accessibility with comfort and ease, or even privilege, rather than an issue of equality and inclusion.

“everyone struggles in this society. The majority needs to be served/content first, before people can start to think of such first world issues as ‘minority rights”  – talking about disabled people as some kind of second rung citizens who need to wait their turn patiently, to be ‘served’  and have their needs met, rather than full members who could already play an active role in building and shaping society.

“Why go through the trouble [of everyone learning sign language along with their first language, so deafness wouldn’t be a disability or disadvantage in society] for a small group of people you might never meet in your life anyway? It’s like telling everyone they have to learn Swedish. What for? Just so you can communicate with them and make them feel welcome, if you happen to meet someone who speaks Swedish here in Poland?”  – reflecting the idea that disability (or at least certain disabilities) only affect a small segment of society, and the underlying assumption that ‘those’ people can remain confined to ‘their’ sort. as long as ‘their’ parents and ‘their’ teachers can speak their language, everybody else doesn’t have to bother. Its not an issue that everyone needs to concern themselves with.

And you also hear the sentiment of disability as the ‘minority card,’ the golden ticket that gives you special access and privileges and discounts [in ‘western’ societies and increasingly more so in PL as well).  This sense of jealousy or suspicion toward disabled people and the idea that they don’t have to struggle as hard in life, because everyone, and society in general, spoils them and takes care of their every need, and they (disabled people) know how to wrap everyone around their little finger and get what they need or want without having to struggle for it.

…..The thing is, that such expressions make sense to me, and sometimes I also start to feel like: why do I bother? maybe this is just a ‘first world’ luxury issue, and I shouldn’t be bothering or annoying these people with it. 😦

But on the other hand,  creating accessible spaces really doesn’t have to be an issue of having the right amount of money (and believe me, even when all the money and resources are there, people could, and do, still neglect it), it’s about having the right amount of motivation for it.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way! I’ve also heard encouraging stories, of neighbors getting together to build a ramp for one of their neighbors who uses a wheelchair, for example. Their apartment building is designed with an elevator that stops at every other floor (someone, in the 60s I believe, thought that was a good idea, to design buildings like that. I lived in one when I was living in PL, and also happened to be living on a floor that the elevator didn’t stop directly at), even though there was just one man in the flat that needed this accommodation, and their city government wouldn’t take care of it (or it would be a process that could take years), the neighbors cared, and they built a ramp for him. Nothing fancy, and it probably doesn’t meet ADA (americans with disabilities act) requirements in terms of safety and durability, but it works, and now he can get in and out of his house.  and I heard another story about a man in a wheelchair who fashioned himself a pulley system (maybe also with the help of neighbors) so he could hoist himself up the stairs, in his wheelchair, to get to his apartment room.  Poles are very creative and, if they care, they’ll always come up with clever solutions and help one another.  Stories like this, and the fact that one person came to my speech voluntarily, and everyone in the audience (all three of them) really cared about this issue, gives me hope.

In activist anthropology, the researcher utilizes personal convictions as a strength, rather than avoiding them as though they were a trap. It challenges the notion that the anthropologist is a detached observer who simply has an academic and impersonal curiosity about the habits, customs and believes of the ‘natives,’  rather than one who holds a shared commitment to improving their situation (Merry 2005: 242).   “Part of activist anthropology involves developing the research questions and project while working with informants, allowing them to participate in the production of knowledge which will contribute to understanding the issues they face and how to resolve them.” (

“The connection between anthropology, advocacy, and activism goes back at least to early 20th century American anthropology.  Franz Boas challenged the scientific racism of Victorian anthropology to insist on racial equality and that cultures should be understood in their own terms.  The single most famous 20th century anthropologist, Margaret Mead, also believed that anthropology should play a role in social change.  “Never doubt,” she famously declared, “that a small group of committed citizens can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” (Duke University)

Merry, Sally Engle. “Anthropology and Activism: Researching Human Rights across Porous Boundaries.” Political and Legal Anthropology Review 8, no. 2 (2005): 240-57.


Widening our circle: Overcoming unintentional discrimination and creating an inclusive environment for all. (Slot speech 2016)

“Imagine you are standing at the foot of a castle.  The door is wide open, Inviting you in. You can hear and see people inside. they are talking and laughing and having a good time together. You want to join them but, there is no way to get into this castle! There are no stairs!  and you realize that all the other people can fly.  they don’t need stairs. they simple jumped up off the ground and flew inside the castle.  and because most people they know can fly, they didn’t think to build stairs for those who can’t.  This is what it feels like when you’re in a wheelchair and there is no ramp or lift.

My presentation today is about creating a place, a society, where people with all kinds of different abilities and limitations can come together to learn from each other, to challenge and inspire one another.   Prawie jak Slot (kinda like slot). Except that there are some people who unfortunately can’t be a part of Slot.

Who don’t you see at Slot?

There are young people. men and women, children as well.  It’s a pretty diverse group of people already, but which kind of people are missing?   What about wheelchair users?  That’s the group I’ll be focusing on today.   Well, not just wheelchair users but creating more social inclusion for people with disabilities, or all kinds of different abilities,  in general.

First I’ll discuss some theories about ‘what is disability’ ?  I’ll discuss the medical model, the social model, and the new materialist view, and how these different ways of defining or understanding disability, affects the ways it’s dealt with or accommodated in a society.

Part two will be about  What is ‘normal?’  Here we’ll explore how the social  understanding of what is ‘normal’  shapes the built environment, and how we could expand our notions of ‘normal’ or expected types of users of building and products, to build a world for a wider variety of people.

and I’d like to end with a brainstorming session, and get your input into what could be done, right here at Slot, to create an environment that is more inclusive for a more diverse range of people.

What is disability?  The two most common ways of looking at disability are the medical model and the social model.

The medical model of disability, which is currently the most common understanding of disability in Poland, views disability as  an individual biological weaknesses or ‘malfunctions’ of the body or mind which makes it more difficult for these individuals to achieve a high standard of life” (Zolkowska et. al. 2002).  Policies from a medical or individual perspective would be of a charitable nature, aimed at providing appropriate care facilities for the disabled.

The social definition of disability on the other hand, holds that one who has an impairment is made disabled when he or she is (inadvertently or purposefully) excluded from participating in society and activities that ‘normal’ people are able to do without thinking twice.  A person might be unable to walk and use a wheelchair, for example, but if all buildings and public transport were wheelchair accessible, if all employers were just as likely to hire him/her as any other just as capable but non-disabled candidate, and if in other contexts too, people were not afraid of his or her difference either – then this person need not live a lower standard of life than anyone else in society, and their impairment may not be disabling or experienced as a disability or disadvantage. Policies from a social perspective would be aimed at integrating people with disabilities into the community by making the physical environment more accessible and promoting an awareness of their capabilities and contributions, when given the right accommodations.

A materialist view:  reminds us that the physical environment,  the buildings we live in and use, is shaped by the social environment, and certain power structures that favor some type of bodies over others. A building may be completely inaccessible, but the building did not appear out of nothing.  What does it say about the architect or the society  that neglected or simply ‘forgot about’ the needs of, for example, wheelchair users when they were coming up with the design for their building? And who told them to build only for ‘normal’ people? Who defines ‘normal’ anyway? Thus, overcoming disablement is not simply a matter of changing the outward appearances and creating policies to make the physical environment more accessible,  but one must also challenge the existing notions of who is a ‘normal’ and considered a legitimate, and expected, occupant of the social sphere or the ‘normal’ everyday world.

that brings us to the next section:

What (or who) is normal?

in the beginning of the 20th century, the US army tested and measured the physical and psychological  characteristics of approximately 100,000 of the fittest and best performing soldiers.  This data was made public and distributed for general use.  The averages, calculated from these young, healthy, military men, have since been used in “industrial design and civilian product design as evidence about potential users” and by the mid 20th century became institutionalized as the  ‘norm’ described in the handbook for American architects to predict the ‘average’ user of their designs. (Hamraie, p, 9).

Maybe you can already see the problem here.

The world is designed for young, fit, military men.

What about mothers with strollers? what about elderly people with arthritis in their knees? what about kids in wheelchairs? In this world (and I’m not describing some kind of fictional story here, but the real world we live in), the closer you are to a young, fit, military man, the more ‘normal’ you are, and the better you fit in.  Everything is designed for you, and you’ll have no problems getting around and making use of public spaces.  But if you’re fat, or you’re short, or you have a baby, or a disability, or you’re old, or young and small … then you might have a problem.

Maybe the military data aren’t always being used anymore (I’m not sure on what figures Polish architects base their ‘norms’ and averages, for example) but when calculating an average, designers and architects still frequently only collect data from young, fit, bodies, and ignore anyone who isn’t …well…. ‘average.’ But is this really a good representation of all potential users of a product or design if, from the very beginning certain groups of people are already excluded from the calculations by default? This average is not really the average of all different kinds of people in the world combined, but only the average of the already…average. and so this myth of who is ‘average’ or ‘normal’ is perpetuated.

Let’s say you’re a designer or an architect and you might think to yourself, ‘well I can design this product or this building mainly for non-disabled people, because I predict it’s going to be mainly non-disabled users who are going to be using it anyway’   (and let me add that it might be a very subconscious thought process. You might not be sitting there at your desk thinking to your self  ‘hm, I doubt there will be very many people in wheelchairs who’ll be using this building.’ but you just don’t consider it at all).  But why don’t you think about it, and make this automatic assumption?

maybe because you most frequently see ‘average’ people and don’t come across too many wheelchair users?

But why don’t you see the wheelchair users?

Maybe because everyone thought like you and didn’t bother to install a ramp or a lift or make the ground even, and so wheelchair users are stuck in their homes or apartments and can’t enter or make use of all public spaces.  and again the myth of who is ‘normal’ or what kind of people are expected  as users of products and building is perpetuated. It’s a vicious circle.

And this is what I mean by unintentional discrimination.   Intentional discrimination would be if you deliberately decided not to make your building accessible.   Maybe because you assumed that most people using the building will be be able to walk and see and hear just fine anyway, so why ‘waste’ time and effort and money trying to accommodate a few unfortunate misfits who aren’t young, fit military men?

That line of reasoning  might to some of you sound like logical and practical reasons (if that’s the case you can talk to me afterwards, and I’ll set you straight) but it is blatant discrimination.  I’m sure that happens too, but I think more often it’s unintentional discrimination.  Where the architect or the organizer of an event was thinking about the potential users of his product or participants in the event and automatically imagines young, healthy people, because those are the kind of people you see most frequently on a daily basis.  and he or she just didn’t consider that there are other people out there too, for example wheelchair users,  or blind or deaf people, who might also like to be included.

and one last thing: It’s important to remember when thinking about accessibility that it’s not an issue of making “special” accommodations for the few unfortunate people who are too lame or to blind or whatever to function in the ‘normal’ world. But it’s about creating spaces for a more diverse group of  people. Because we’re all people, and we all have different abilities and limitations.

We’re not all young, athletic military men.   (and if you are, lucky you, but you won’t stay that way forever either).  We might be, or become, parents, carrying infants or pushing strollers. and this creates different needs for us when it comes to accessibility of buildings and public spaces, we might (hopefully we will) grow old, and might develop more difficulties with walking and hearing and seeing, but still like to get out of the house and be part of the world for as much and as long as possible,  and any one of us could end up in a wheelchair at any time in our lives. but that needn’t be the end of the world, or of your social life or your working life, if only everyone could be more aware of this, and we could design a world for ALL  people.

and what about creating such a world, where all are welcome and included, and no-one has to stand at the foot of a stairs, wishing they could fly, right here at Slot?  I know it’ll be challenging, because it’s an old building, and there’s not a whole lot of money available, so we’ll have to work very creatively. But where there’s a will there’s a way.  My dream is that Slot will be an example for the rest of Poland about the things that are possible when people really mean it when they say ‘we are creating a place where all kinds of different people can come together to challenge and inspire one another.’  (That is a quote adapted from the Slot website). If it is possible at Slot, despite the obvious challenges, the historic building ,the lack of funding, etc. Then the rest of Poland and the rest of the world really doesn’t have any excuse anymore for not making their places inclusive and accessible for all too.  I wanted to end with a brainstorming session, and get your input, about ways we could include more people at Slot.



Gleeson, B. (1999). Beyond Goodwill: the Materialist View of Disability. Social Alternatives, 18(1), 11-17.
Hamraie, A. (2012). Universal Design Research as a New Materialist Practice. Disability Studies Quarterly, 32(4). Retrieved from:

Kasnitz, D., & Shuttleworth, R. (2001). Introduction: Anthropology in Disability Studies. Disability Studies Quarterly, 21(3). Retrieved from

Zolkowska, T., Kasior-Szerszen, I., & Blaszkiewicz, I. (2002). European Union Policy Toward People with Disabilities. Disability Studies Quarterly, 20(4): 217–224. http://dsq-sd-

More inspiration:

Ed Roberts, accessible campus:

“designers and architects shouldn’t think about the code requirements as restraints; they should see how designing for a diverse community is an opportunity to be creative and to open the world for more people.”  “Everyone has something to offer, something to share something to say. In true community, people aren’t burdens, they’re assets, they’re members. Their “own” kind, is human kind. Thats us. And we belong together in community, It’s who we are, at our best. We don’t need to cure diversity, We need to enjoy it, because it’s awesome. We’re all interdependent. So lets stop labeling some people ‘dependent’ and some ‘independent.’ We need each other. It’s that simple […] 94% of people with disability felt like they didn’t have enough meaningful community partici- pation. So what are we going to do about that? Are there ways that you’re going about the business of being you [doing, promoting, enjoying etc. what you do] that are excluding people? are there ways you can do the business of being you, that includes more people? What if we declare ourselves a socially inclusive community, and work toward consciously adjusting our thoughts, words and actions, to promote belonging […] what if we focused on possibilities, not limitations. So that everyone who’s been excluded from communities can believe in their own value and their limitless possibilities. That’s my emerging dream of how our community can be an experiment. Join me in this revolution.”

“Disability is a natural part of our humanity. It’s ok. “it’s perfectly natural for human beings to be diverse. It’s what makes us strong and interesting and vital”

The road to Slot.

When my Polish teacher asked me to tell her the story (in Polish) of how I got this opportunity to speak at the Slot Art Festival, I replied with a laugh, “długo opowieści” (long story) and began: “cztery lata temu…”  (four years ago…).   I’ll continue the story in English now. The Polish version unfortunately wasn’t half as fluent or detailed.

It began with a dream, a vision: “I dream of a society in which everyone is included and able to participate to their maximum capacity. Where people help one another to live and to succeed. And I would love to see this change start at Slot. For Slot to set the example of what such a society could look like. For Slot to be the place where Everyone, all kinds of different people, can get away from the daily hassles of the competitive, materialistic, opportunistic world and discrimination they face, to be bathed in a cloak of cooperation, sharing with and learning from each other, where each voice and skill matters and everyone can contribute something meaningful. This is actually right in line with Slot’s vision, so I’m not proposing any radically new ideals here. I’m just asking them to open it up to more people.”

in 2012, I was at Slot, and it was very tricky for me to get around(many stairs without railings, uneven ground, etc). and I thought what a pity it is that a festival that claims to be so inclusive and all about learning from diversity actually (unintentionally, probably) excludes such a large group of people (those with physical disabilities) and I thought that surely something can be done about that. I know it’ll be difficult, but where there’s a will there’s a way, right?  The next year (2013) I didn’t think about Slot much because I was recovering from the accident with my neck. But then in 2014 I was in Poland again in the summer, after I found out I was accepted into the University of Alabama, for my project on the social integration of people with disabilities in PL, and thought about Slot and the accessibility issue. I wrote them an email about that topic, just to raise awareness and ask them what they thought of it.  But I didn’t hear anything from them. I also talked to a friend who was going to Slot that year, and working with some of the organizers, and she said she would talk to them about it as well.  I think I was secretly hoping that I would be invited to meet with them and we could exchange ideas and visions, and see what could be done to change the situation. But nothing happened.

I wasn’t too discouraged that time, but I thought, next year, for sure, the change is gonna come. Well the following summer (that was last summer, 2015), i wrote them again, but again got no response and nothing happened. That time I was pretty upset about it, when my friends left for the festival, and I couldn’t go with them. My promise to myself/goal for myself had been that that year, I would be at Slot too, ready to make a difference  (I’m a bit of a dreamer sometimes 😉 ) I wrote this blog post:

But this year, 2016, someone finally listened…although that doesn’t mean that nobody  heard me before, there were reasons why my emails seemed to be falling on deaf ears, and it’s mostly got to do with the way the festival is organized, but it would be too long of a digression if I described all that here. and I understood that at the time too. I wasn’t too offended that nobody ever wrote me back. I realized that most likely I was too late (both years it wasn’t till June or July that I finally wrote something), just a few weeks before Slot, when everything was already organized and they were probably too busy and stressed, putting the last pieces together, and I’m sure did not appreciate another point of organization to consider. Perhaps they liked my ideas and the ideology behind it, but they’re already far too busy and stretched to their limits just to keep Slot running, organizing what needs to be organized, as it is, and really can’t afford (financially and time management/ organizationally) the additional burdens and challenges of somehow making Slot accessible. I understood that, but still… it’s hard being a realist and idealist at the same time.

Anyway, this year, 2016, I began the conversation in January already, and contacted the friend who is involved in organizing a part of Slot, rather than the ‘central office’ (although Slot isn’t really organized from the top down, so doesn’t really have a ‘central office’ that responsible for the whole organization).  I wrote her that “[…]I know Slot already sees itself as an alternative little society, where people can get away from the ‘daily rat race’ and live in harmony with one another, feel respected for what they are able to contribute. It would just be nice if more people could be part of it. And I’m not gonna leave it at just ‘it would be nice.’ I don’t know why I’ve gotten this idea in my head, to change Slot and change the world, but as you may or may not know, once I’ve gotten an idea in my head, it’s hard to get it out and I get pretty determined and stubborn until its accomplished.”

And finally, someone took me seriously, and we got the ball rolling 🙂 🙂    After 4 months of emailing back and forth,  and me being very pushy and persistent, and constantly asking my friend, Marta (whom I call Charlie), for an update on the progress – if she’d talked to so and so yet, or heard back about such and such, and Marta being very persistent behind the scenes in Poland, contacting various people and trying various avenues for me to be able to contribute somehow in someway to Slot this year, finally, when I was already in PL for the summer, I found out that it was really happening and this year, I could be a part of Slot!!

(I thought my other mistake the first two times, besides contacting them too late, and perhaps contacting the wrong people, was not being persistent enough. But this time around, I decided to change my normally ‘polite’ and ‘don’t want to bother or annoy anyone’ (besides my little brother ;P) approach and make sure my dreams and visions were heard and not let anyone ignore me. I don’t like this role (of the demanding and pushy person) but I didn’t care anymore if I would be found pushy or annoying. This needed to happen!)

I was warned that the setting would not be ideal and comfortable (not a big lecture hall with all the equipment set up), but just a dusty, noisy corridor, where people would be coming and going, not even a closed room.   But I didn’t care. I was ready to embrace this challenge! and willing to adapt my presentation to whatever format would be most suitable or possible at Slot. There were still the logistics to figure out as well.  Staying at Slot means camping in a tent. I was willing to try that (or risk it), though I knew it wouldn’t be ideal. And then there was also the question of how I would get to Slot. (I can’t drive and there isn’t really any public transport that stops close enough. But I was willing to hitchhike if I had to. One way or another, I would be at Slot this year!)  Then I found out my friends mother was also thinking about going, and I figured, she probably has the same concerns, about sleeping in a tent (she also has problems with her spine), and possible also feels like 5 days at the festival would be too much. Long story short, I contacted the Polish family where me and my friends had stayed when we went to the festival in 2012, and asked my friends mom if she would like to go to Slot with me, for one or two days and stay in this comfortable house. And in the end, that worked out 🙂  We drove there together on Friday, stayed at the house during the nights, went to Slot during the day, I gave my speech there on Saturday afternoon, and we returned on Sunday morning 🙂

In the end, there were only two people in the audience (my friend’s mom and one other person + the translator, so 4 participants, including myself, in total), which meant it was more of a nice small group discussion, rather than me presenting my speech. But I was glad that my message came across to them. (sometimes I’m worried that my ideas only make sense in my own head, but they seemed fully intrigued, or even inspired, and I didn’t get any blank stares, and we had a great discussion afterwards).

a small step toward the goal (of creating an inclusive and accessible environment at Slot and beyond), but it felt like a monumental step for me.  After three years of dreaming  and praying and working toward this, finally it happened.  Someone listened, someone took me seriously, and someone let me speak – and now a few more people have heard, and share this goal.

I’ll share my speech in the next post, for those of you who are interested.





“Autoethnography is an intriguing and promising qualitative method that offers a way of giving voice to personal experience for the purpose of extending sociological understanding.”  (Wall 2008: 38).

Part of my research here in Poland involves  investigating the perspectives and experiences of people with disabilities in PL.   It occurred to me: I have a disability too, right? and I have ‘perspectives and experiences’ too, regarding how other people treat me and the kind of reactions I get, from people on the street or in the shops, for example.   From an auto-ethnographic perspective, all of these personal experiences can be used as data too.  One only has to be careful not to let it turn into so called navel-gazing (or the “self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue, at the expense of a wider view”) and become too introspective about one’s own feelings in a situation, or how one experienced or reacted to an event.  Rather: what do theses kind of interactions and reactions index (or suggest) about broader cultural perceptions of normality and disability, processes of socialization (how children are taught about differences and how people learn through interactions), and how these perceptions and processes in turn index larger cultural models of how the world and society ought to function (who is a ‘valid’ vs. ‘invalid’ citizen, who has valid vs. invalid opinions).

I’m not planning to write a full auto-ethnography about my experiences here, but I suppose I could include some auto ethnographic elements.   So here are some from my field notes from this year:

“I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by how ‘normal’ I’m being treated. For example (at least) twice this summer I’ve been approached by a stranger on the street and asked for directions or the time. You might think: ‘so what?’  But to me this indicates they are (I almost wanted to say ‘mistaking me for :P’) seeing me as a probably competent and intelligent enough human being, who can offer assistance to other people, even though I may walk a little funny and usually wear my neck brace and walk with my walking stick.   From the older generation, I still frequently get signs of pity, though. But it doesn’t offend me. They’re usually giving me a blessing or some kind of encouragement, so I thank them (sincerely) and go on with my normal day.  being blessed by strangers gives me a good feeling too, but I guess I prefer being asked for help.  But anyway, autoethnography is not about how these instances make me feel, but what they might be indexing (suggesting) about broader cultural assumptions about people who look or walk a little bit differently.  Can they be intelligent? can they help other people? or can they only be helped and need to be taken care of all the time?  This summer I’ve had only one (funny) instance, in which I felt like I wasn’t being treated like a normal adult:  The time I was congratulated for opening a door.  😀 An older/elderly lady was just coming out of the shop and closed the door behind her when she saw me approaching and asked or wondered out loud whether I would be able to open the door or she should help me, and then I opened the door, and she exclaimed ‘congratulations! all by yourself! oh, you are so strong!’  (granted, it was a very heavy door 😉  so the praise may have been somewhat appropriate 😛 hehe) I thanked her and walked inside, laughing to myself about that rather strange encounter.  I don’t know how old she thought I was, or how weak exactly.  But that was the only encounter, this summer, in which I felt a little different and not treated like a normal adult. I wasn’t offended  or hurt by it though. I mostly found it funny.  (last summer I had more unpleasant encounters).

But like I said, this year people seem to be treating me like a more normal human being than I was ever used to around here.  Maybe the society is changing and becoming more open toward different people, maybe I’ve become more self-confident and people are reacting to that, or maybe it’s the hair (I got my hair cut short, in the hopes of looking more mature, and being treated like an adult).”

“when I got on the tram this morning, it looked rather full and I probably looked rather panicked, hoping I’d find an empty seat before it started moving. A lady in front of me got up and offered me her seat. Then when  I took out my ticket, she offered to stamp it for me, but the lady sitting next to me asked me where I was going, and then offered me her, already stamped ticket, because she was getting off at the next stop, and the ticket was good for a few more stops.  There seems to be something uniquely Polish about finding these little ways to help each other. She wouldn’t be needing her ticket anymore, so rather than throwing it in the trash, she might as well pass it along to someone else, as she’s leaving the tram. A small act of kindness that doesn’t cost you anything, but one could so easily forget to do or not even think about doing. In this instance I felt taken care of by these ladies, but not like they were treating me like a child or baby that needs to be taken care of, but there was rather a sense of camaraderie.  An understanding that you know what the other person, your fellow passenger, (not just the poor disabled girl) needs (a seat, a stamped ticket) and you look out for one another.”

Some more (non auto ethnographic) observations:  “I’ve been seeing a lot more people with disabilities, and in wheelchairs, in the city this summer than possibly during the entire two years that I lived in PL (in 2012 and 2013).  I’ve seen two different people zipping around in scooters or electric wheelchairs, one very short person walking with a walking frame,  three people in a wheelchairs being pushed by someone else, and one young person walking with a lot of difficulty with a walking stick (and no, I was not walking past a mirror and observing myself at that moment :P).  When I was living in Katowice, the only person I ever saw in a wheelchair was a beggar on the street.   Maybe by the time I come back next year, disabled people will be so fully integrated and treated like normal, every day, citizens, that there won’t even be a need for my research project anymore.  😉    (but that also “indexes” the limits of an auto-ethnographic approach. Just because I feel like I’m being treated like a normal person, for the most part, and can go out and participate normally in this society, doesn’t mean that all disabled people feel that way or may experience their society in the same way).”

and now for some pure, unadulterated, ‘navel-gazing’ and self reflections 😉

“Maybe another reason why I might be easy to approach is because I tend to pay close attention to my surroundings, including the people in my surroundings.  I good habit for an ethnographer, I guess 🙂  (it’s not why I do it though. I’m mainly just being vigilant all the time, perhaps a little bit hyper-vigilant, to be aware of where there might be  step where one could trip over, or a slippery surface, or a door that could fly open and hit me, and to observe who isn’t paying attention to where he or she is going, or might suddenly break into a run, and bump into me. That sort of thing. but, never the less) taking good note of your surroundings and the behavior of the people around you is a good skill for an ethnographer too.  and it probably makes you more approachable too – more approachable then those who are walking straight ahead on automatic pilot, or looking at their phones, paying no mind to anything or anyone around them –  because people can see that you’ve already seen them, and they don’t need to try to get your attention first, ‘cause they’ve already got it.

and I guess I may also be easier to approach because I walk (quite a bit) slower than the rest, so it’s not too difficult to stop me to ask for directions or for the time, because I’m almost stopped already anyway 😛  (if I was going any slower, I’d be moving backwards).   Today I was stopped again on the street, this time by a man who wanted to ask me why I wear the neck brace. It turned into a long (half an hour) conversation about Poland, England, France, Mexicans, his mother, drunk drivers, and thieves. We talked in half english half polish, and a little bit of french. His name is Janek (Jacques in French, in “Jack” in England), and he had only a few teeth.  (but besides his appearance, he seemed like a very intelligent gentleman. he spoke ok English, and fluent french, and told me that he had been the first Polish person to get a degree at some famous lyceum in France (I forgot the name of it though).”

I guess I’m still most frequently stopped for a chat by drunk old men (Jack wasn’t drunk though) and Jehovah’s witnesses, rather than ‘normal’ people asking for directions or the time, but that’s probably the case for everyone.  Although most people probably ignore the drunk old men and Jehovah’s witnesses, or ignore everyone, when walking down the street.

I still find it difficult to distinguish between probably ‘normal,’ working people and probably homeless, drunk people.  Sometimes you can tell by their smell – the smell of alcohol and unclean clothes – but I’m just not good at judging people by their looks.  One time, a few weeks ago, I mistook a beggar for the owner of the restaurant. I thought he was recommending his soup to me, and wanted me to buy the soup with my pierogi, so I thought. ‘Sure, why not. I’ll get the soup too.’   (we were both standing in front of the counter, where I was ordering my food).  Then, when I was sitting at the table, the waitress brought me my plate of pierogi, and the beggar joined me at the table with his bowl of soup.  That’s when I realized I’d accidentally done a good deed that day 🙂  (and made a new friend too).


reference about auto ethnography:

Wall, Sarah. 2008. “Easier said than done: Writing an Autoethnography.” International Journal of Qualitative Methods, 7(1).

Exploring the Polish language (and its history)

Besides doing preliminary ethnographic research here in Poland this summer, I’m also taking Polish lessons. I have two teachers (private tutors) – one for Monday, Wed. and Fri. and the other one on Tues. and Thursday. Both have studied Polish linguistics and history, and sometimes add a little history/cultural lesson to explain where certain words or grammatical structures came from or why it is like that. For example, why the Polish language has separate words for daughter and son of your brother vs. the daughter and son of your sister, whereas in English, you’d refer to both as your nieces and nephews, doesn’t matter if it’s the child of your sister or brother. (and in Dutch, the words for daughter and son of your brother or sister – niece and nephew – are the same as the words for your girl and boy cousins (daughter’s and son’s of your mom or dad’s brother’s or sister’s)….whereas English makes no distinction between boy or girl cousin, both are called ‘cousin’ ). Anyway, it has to do with the inheritance laws of the past. It was very important to know whether one was referring to the children of one’s brother or one’s sister. Because one was entitled to the same inheritance and the other not. Hence, the clear distinction in the language.

Also, the Polish language has 7 cases, and each of those cases is divided into 3 genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In some of those cases, the masculine gender is (still) further subdivided to indicate whether one is talking about a living thing or an object, and in same cases, the masculine case is even further subdivided into male person, living thing (animal), or object. Whereas this distinction has never (in any point in the history of the language) occurred in any words in the feminine gender in the Polish language. I knew these grammar rules before, and the distinctions/ different grammatical structures in the masculine gender for living things vs. objects, but never realized that it has to do with the patriarchal society, in which it is was (and still is) very important to make clear whether you’re referring a man, an animal, or an object. It would be offensive if you refer to a male person in the same way/using the same grammar used to refer to an animal or object. Whereas, when one is talking about something in the feminine (grammatical)gender,  it doesn’t matter if it’s a person, animal, or object you’re referring to.  It’s all the same, grammar wise. and that may reflect the (at least historical) attitude toward women. They can be confused with, or referred to like,  animals or objects, but men absolutely cannot.

The main emphasis of the course is of course on how to use the language, but I really enjoy these little extra lessons/explanations on the side about why or how the language evolved the way it did and why things are said in a certain way, why the different categories and grammatical distinctions exist. Getting to know the dear Polish people, their habits and customs and situations and culture of the past that gave rise to this language and it’s complicated rules. (understanding this past makes me a little more forgiving about it’s insane complexity too. Now I understand that the Polish language wasn’t, in fact, invented by a cruel linguist who was too smart for his own good and wanted to numb the minds of unsuspecting learners 😉  But there is a reason behind much of this complexity (or madness)

Here’s another example: In Polish, different grammar rules are applied (a different case, and different prepositions, are used) depending on whether you’re talking about going to a place with (real or imagined) borders or walls, such as a building, or a foreign country, or an open space/flat surface.* E.g. Jadę do Francji (genitive) but Jadę na wieś (accusative) I’m going to France, I’m going to the countryside, respectively.

But also, Jadę na Litwę, jadę na Łotwie, jadę na Węgry, and some other place (I’m going to Lithuania, I’m going to Latvia, I’m going to Hungary) But aren’t these also foreign countries, so shouldn’t we use do + genetive case, not na + accusative? Well, they are now separate countries, but historically they were a part of Poland, and that’s why,  in the grammar, they are still treated as districts of Poland.

Call me a nerd, but I love these kinds of grammar + history lessons 🙂

*That was just a simplified lesson.  you also use different noun endings (i.e. different cases) and pronouns for going to a body of water (e.g. a lake, the ocean), going to mountains, going to a person, or going to an event. And different verbs depending on whether you’re going on foot, going by transportation on the ground, or going by plane. And the word changes again (becomes a different case again) when you’re going to the place, when you’re at the place, and when you’re leaving the place.

e.g. idę na koncert, jestem na koncercie, wracam z koncertu (I’m going to a concert/event, I’m at a concert, I’m coming back from a concert).

idę do szkoły, jestem w szkole, wracam ze szkoły (I’m going to school/building, I’m at school, I’m returning from school.

Well I could go on and on describing the fun challenges of the Polish language 😉 but I think I’ll end on that note.